Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times. New York City in the 1970s was the Rotten Apple. Social decay, the threat of bankruptcy, high levels of crime, vice out in the open for all to see, porno theatres dominating Times Square, and frequent power outages darkened the most vibrant metropolis in the world. If you’ve seen The Get Down, the criminally underrated Baz Luhrmann Netflix show, disco, punk and hip hop were birthed during these troubled days. Another cultural boom happened, too: the east coast porn industry. The old New York is now gone forever, like many other global cities, the changes wrought by real estate booms and law enforcement campaigns to clean up the streets leading to gentrification horrors and social cleansing. But all that is way, way in the future in the time of either The Get Down or HBO’s new series, The Deuce.
The eight-part drama explores the founding and exploitation of the porno industry by the underworld in NYC, its effect on the city, commerce, law and order and the lives of people involved intimately or on the periphery. David Simon and George Pelacanos teaming up again is a big deal. Why? Because they’re amazing writers. Their attention to character, plot and socio-economic underpinnings pays riveting dividends and marks their work out as almost literary in its richness, like epic tomes of Hugo, Zola or Dickens.
Here, the result is frankly as good as television gets. The production values are astonishing, the cinematography successfully recreates the grubby look of the era, and the writing and dialogue is tip-top, less focused on one grand plot and more on interpersonal dramas and relationships. Then, there’s the stunning William Klein-meets-Martin Scorsese opening credits sequence – a rich blaze of city lights and street sleaze – and the fascinating sound design and mixing, which recalls Robert Altman’s multi-track, multi-voice dialogue aesthetic, opening the environment around The Deuce (the nickname for 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue) and crafting an immersive aural experience. In other words, the sounds of the city are not just there for atmosphere, but cleverly draw out a host of unseen street moments.
The cast, including James Franco in dual roles as Frankie and Vincent Martino – two fellas getting further and further into Mob-backed shenanigans – are uniformly brilliant. While Vincent is constantly uneasy at his alliance with Gambino Family capo, Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli), Frankie enjoys his new-found role as a mafioso gopher. Franco acting next to Franco dazzles, at times. If Vincent is cautious and interested in going straight, his brother is the exact opposite.
But the real ace in the creative deck might be producer Maggie Gyllenhaal. Starring as Eileen Merrell (hooker name ‘Candy’), the character is a street walker, who slowly finds empowerment and a flair for creativity in the burgeoning porno movie field. Throughout Season 1, her backstory remains murky and deliberately vague. So, if viewers are expecting any specific reason as to how Eileen ended up selling her body, it isn’t forthcoming … yet. Instead, the focus is on the character getting out of the game and into a new one: teaming up with schlubby porno director Harvey (David Krumholtz), who hires the former pro to screw on camera, before realising she has a real eye for aesthetics and starting to include her in business chats and letting her learn the ropes of filmmaking.
“You know what capitalism is? Getting fucked,” as Al Pacino’s Scarface put it, in the 1983 Brian De Palma classic. Eileen has a very slim degree of autonomy, as she works alone, batting off interest from popinjay pimps who harass her from time to time. But the move into porn presents an opportunity to improve her conditions. Gyllenhaal on board as producer has ensured a feminist voice is heard among the men. Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), in which Julie Christie played Cockney brothel madam Constance Miller, Eileen is the smartest person in the room and listening to her would be wise. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) never listened to Constance, and paid with his life, but Harvey does and is intrigued enough by her ideas to give her a shot.
Eileen might be servicing the libidinous desires of men, as either a whore or porn actor, but in the patriarchal system of capitalism, she is learning to make it work in her favour, as well as finding artistic expression – for the first time – in a pioneering new medium. She is interested in making it look ‘hot’, in making the performers comfortable, hiring girls she knows from the streets, who will be less in peril on a film set than in some manky fleapit hotel room or up against a wall in a darkened alley. The idea of porn does not remotely shock her – not even when a distributor talks about porn involving horses and dogs. Eileen is Constance Miller 2.0, or Constance Miller who has time-travelled forward 75 years to NYC from Washington state. Eileen is not the classic tart-with-a-heart figure for men to further project their patriarchal saviour fantasies upon. She doesn’t need Travis Bickle to come and rescue her. The character is more than capable of digging herself out of a hole and pouncing on an opportunity. Gyllenhaal is superb in a daring and complex role, crafting a humanist drama streets ahead of most movies released in 2017.